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What responsibility do leaders have to their developers?

DLC: Tim Schafer, Amy Hennig, and Bryan Intihar talk about the obligations they have to the people who report to them

From time to time, there are interesting bits from our interviews that don't really fit well into the rest of the story, but are still worth reporting. Rather than relegate them to the trash bin of unpublished work, we'd like to repackage them into columns intended to provide additional insight on a variety of topics. While the exact format of these columns will change from entry to entry, we will publish them under the banner of 'DLC.'

Earlier this year, Activision Blizzard announced it had just enjoyed its most profitable year ever. At the same time, it also announced it would be laying off some 800 employees. Activision stockholders seemed pleased, sending the company's share price up 10% in the following days, but many on the development side and in the press found the move to be needlessly cruel.

Activision Blizzard has never been shy about its focus on the bottom line, but the layoffs still felt above and beyond. I was in Las Vegas at the DICE conference that week, and as soon as the earnings hit, the standard conversation opener changed from, "So how's your show been?" to "Did you hear about Activision Blizzard?" After all, when a company is all about rewarding profit and nothing else, it seems like a betrayal to reward record profits with pink slips.

"We don't lay people off for convenience... If they're a lifer, then we see them as a lifer, and we're committed to them 100%."

Tim Schafer

The very idea of those layoffs felt like Activision Blizzard violating a social contract. It asked for their loyalty and their performance, and in return it discarded them as soon as it was convenient. It felt like the company was shirking a responsibility to its employees. That's a concept I don't think gets considered very often in this industry, but I'd like to see that change. I had a few interviews with people in leadership positions left to conduct at the show, so I decided to ask them what responsibility they felt they had to the people who report to them.

First up was Double Fine Productions founder Tim Schafer, who I spoke with that same afternoon. The Activision Blizzard news was still developing when I asked him what responsibility he had to his employees.

"The ultimate responsibility? It's something I think about when I go to be every night, making sure we can pay these 60 people," Schafer said. "We've been around for 18 years, and that's obviously something we take seriously. It's what our biz dev branch is constantly trying to do, lay the track in front of the train, make it as long as possible so people can just focus on their job, be creative and not have to worry about that."

Schafer said it helps that Double Fine is a fairly small company where he knows the team.

"I've hung out with them and their families and it's a very personal thing," he said. "That's a difference between being at a big company and a small company. When people interview at DoubleFine, a lot of them will ask, 'How stable are you?' And we say, 'We've had a lot of ups and downs, but we've been around for almost 20 years, and we're 100% committed to your job. We're committed to you being an employee here forever. We don't lay people off for convenience. We don't have public stockholders or anything like that where we have to lay people off to make our [profit and loss statement] look good or anything like that. If they're a lifer, then we see them as a lifer, and we're committed to them 100%."

The next day, I asked the same question to Amy Hennig, who has long been a creative director and leadership figure in studios like EA Visceral, Naughty Dog, and Crystal Dynamics, and has started her own independent studio. She directly addressed the Activision Blizzard situation in the interview that ran following DICE, but we set aside her answer on what responsibility she owed her teams for this article.

"In the vague sense? Candor," she said. "I think that's the most important thing. Everybody understands the realities of our medium, our industry, and the best thing a boss can be is candid with their people and honest, I think. Otherwise you see entire companies and studios falling prey to fear and speculation about how secure their jobs are, what's going on, what decisions are getting made.

"The worst you can do is leave people in the dark, or not give them an exciting goal, a summit to reach"

Amy Hennig

"I feel like I'm giving you airy answers, but having a vision. People want to follow a leader that's holding a standard and saying, 'I have a vision. This way. Here's the hill, I'm going to lead you up it.' I think too often it's not really clear what the 'why' of a company or studio is, and that's got to come from the person who is at the head of the thing. That's what keeps people motivated through the tough times, what helps the team find their True North. And a lot of people are just not very good at these things. They might not have risen to a position of leadership because they're good at these things; they might have risen for other reasons.

"And if you're the head of a large studio, having enough foresight to actually make sure that if we do see the team and the people as the greatest asset, that you're protecting them by having a plan that's somewhat future-proof, not just looking five feet ahead all the time.

"I'm not starting up a 300-person team, but a very small one. So I think about these things for myself. The most important aspects are candor, trust, honesty and being able to constantly state and restate a very clear vision for the team so that they're empowered to make decisions that are pointing in the right direction. The worst you can do is leave people in the dark, or not give them an exciting goal, a summit to reach."

"My responsibility first was to help establish a vision for the game that the team could believe in"

Bryan Intihar

We also spoke to Insomniac's Bryan Intihar, creative director on the PlayStation 4-exclusive Spider-Man game. After all, given that franchise's guiding principle -- "With great power comes great responsibility" -- Intihar's own duties to his team were something he must have considered.

"I think my responsibility first was to help establish a vision for the game that the team could believe in," Intihar said. "If you don't have the support of the team, you're dead in the water. These games are so big, so complex, that if you don't have the buy-in from the team, it's going to be hard to get anything.

"The great thing about working at Insomniac was if you hand an idea over to somebody, they're instantly going to make it better. They just are. There are too many talented people to think that one person's going to do it all. The responsibility is to give them a vision they can believe in and make clear, but the power is to let them go do it. And I had to learn that. I had to learn that I didn't need all the answers. I didn't need to know every single detail.

"Once I said, 'Here's an idea, how can you make it better?' or 'Hey, this isn't working. What do you think we should do?', the game got infinitely better. And that was something I had to learn. I had to listen from the team when they started saying, 'You're holding on a little too tight.' Because I was scared. I was scared of failing, right? In one way, letting go actually allowed the game to really blossom."

In light of the last few weeks' worth of news about Epic Games, NetherRealm Studios, Cloud Imperium Games, and Riot Games, now would be a good time for everyone with any direct reports in the industry, from team leads to CEOs, to answer this question for themselves: What responsibility do I have for the people I have power over, and have I been living up to it?

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